Already programmed: responses

Connected, but alone?

Sherry Turkle argues in her TED talk, “Connected, but alone?” that too much texting is bad for us: she anticipates the unpopularity of the talk because this isn’t something people or companies want to hear. People are more comfortable with machines, which enable interaction without real emotional risk. But, they also can’t really empathize with us.

The argument that texting leaves out a lot of cues, and is a bad medium of conversation makes sense (even though I’d like to point out that it allows for other things, like video, photos, group chat, and sharing of virtual content that gives a different richness to these exchanges). I struggle with the assertion that we are more alone than we used to be. Maybe this is true, but I find it hard to imagine that the work required to maintain a basic standard of living, and the isolation of people that didn’t fit into a previously even-more-rigid social structure, allowed for greater social connection and less loneliness in years past (in Western societies). She gives anecdotes of cases where people she’s interviewed specifically avoided in-person interaction, but I wonder how common this really is, and what the alternative would have been before the internet and before texting. Maybe these individuals would have been even worse off.


We are all cyborgs now

Amber Case’s talk, “We are all cyborgs now,” is funny because she makes the absurdity of our new rituals around technology so apparent. She notes the difference between other human tools and computers is that computers act as an extension of our mental selves, rather than our physical selves. One point (which serves as the basis for one of Yueping’s projects!) is this idea that we find ourselves rummaging through this external brain, unable to find our documents or an old google search.

I really don’t need much convincing the we’re already cyborgs, which is her main thesis. I just loved how observant this talk is, and I wonder if other’s see these machines as extensions of our bodies in the same way?


Program or be programmed

Rushkoff’s talk, “Program or be programmed,” is a discussion of his book by the same name, where he makes the case for media literacy. That he feels he needs to persuade people of its importance is kind of ironic since this is the antidote for otherwise being blindly coerced by our history, social context, and capitalist/corporate environment.

I ended up watching his talk, “Open source democracy” (coerced by the youtube playlist) as well, because his historical accounts that bring us into our present socio-economic context and the proposals he makes for addressing the related issues are equally fascinating. That we should learn to code because it changes the way we think, and has real social/political/world consequences recalls Papert’s Mindstorms! And his call for local economies, local solutions, and local engagement recalls Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy.

Skeptically, I think even with greater awareness of how we are coerced, manipulated, “programmed,” I don’t think we have the power to fully reclaim our agency. Cognizance of these mechanisms only helps to the extent that we have power over our reality, and even if we are to argue in favor of free will, this would only give us control over a tiny proportion of our lives. Is it lucky then, if your programming allows you to see through the program?

Responses: Sharing on the internet

Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda

This analysis sought to examine the media ecosystems during the 2016 election cycle that led to Trump’s ascendance using “hyperlinking patterns, social media sharing patterns on Facebook and Twitter, and topic and language patterns in the content of the 1.25 million stories.” The study points to social media “as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world,” with Breitbart at the center. The authors present evidence of the role of social media platforms and the right-wing online media, something that I think many were attuned to at the time–after Trump’s election I cringed and navigated to Breitbart for the first time.

While the authors note (and this is clearly observable by living online) that disinformation is common, they found that political and media polarization online was asymmetric–the right-oriented people got more of their news from newer, more polarized sites. I didn’t realize that right-wing media was younger in general. In the mid-2000s, when I was horrified that the adults elected Bush (twice!) I had imagined the right as Fox-news consumers. Now, even Fox is vilified by this new right wing media. From the comparison of patterns on Facebook and Twitter the authors suggest, “human choices and political campaigning, not one company’s algorithm, were responsible for the patterns we observe,” although both are dependent on click-driven revenue. Regardless, the result is scary and unprecedented:

…the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive.

Rebuilding a basis on which Americans can form a shared belief about what is going on is a precondition of democracy, and the most important task confronting the press going forward.


Rebuilding the Web We Lost

It was so interesting to read Anil Dash’s perspective on the nature and promise of the old social web: from self-hosting your online identity, the importance of flickr, search, and non-monetized links, to norms around data use and tracking, and crowdfunding. My tween experience was mainly around AOL and AIM.  He wrote a companion piece outlining what could be done to bring the most valuable elements of what was lost back. The main things that stood out were diversity and funding: it seems like a combination of an insular industry and its ad-based funding streams resulted in these negative trends.

The biggest reason the social web drifted from many of the core values of that early era was the insularity and arrogance of many of us who created the tools of the time… Another way of looking at the exclusionary tendencies of typical Silicon Valley startups is by considering the extraordinary privilege of most tech tycoons as a weakness to be exploited.

Dash is hopeful about ways we can address these problems, suggesting that the insularity of Silicon Valley provides an opportunity to create something better that would compete with their flawed strategies. But to me this seems like such massive, ingrained problem that it will take several years if they are ever addressed. There are definitely people promoting diversity in tech, but I seldom hear this value espoused at high levels of the industry, where the power of culture change is manifest. The idea that we can promote blue-collar coding is actually somewhat alarming–like the value of the service is different dependent on who does it. It makes sense that industry partners are invested in teaching computer science for this exact reason.

And then there’s funding: is anyone working on funding websites a different way? Is this even possible for the conglomerates that have already taken over? Or do we have to wait for them to be unseated?

…the fundamental reason these sites refused to accommodate so many user demands is because of economics. Those sites make their revenues on models dictated by the terms of funding from the firms that backed them.


Habits of Leaking: Of Sluts and Network Cards

Wendy Chun’s piece addresses many aspects, traditions, and values of western culture, born out out of its colonial, racist, and patriarchal history, that give proper context to abuse (the focus is mainly abuse towards white women) on the web. One of the more salient arguments is around the right to space and the right to citizenship on the web, and how this is connected to the right to exist in public, to loiter.

We need an online public in which women are not victims but loiterers, actively engaging in its public sphere without a discourse of predators, pornographers, and slut-shamers waiting there to ruin them…we need to fight for the right to be vulnerable–to be in public–and not be attacked.

… mass loitering […] creates mixtures and possibilities that erode boundaries and establishes spaces that do not leak because boundaries are not compromised.

I was reminded of Jillian York’s piece on harassment and censorship, because she argues that women expressing themselves, existing, “shout[ing] louder over the din,” is one helpful way to address this abuse. A harmful and effective aspect of online abuse, before it begins to threaten physical bodies, is the way shame is utilized. There’s no a priori reason to feel shame as a victim outside of a culture that hoists shame upon women for existing in public–this does seem like something we could change to strip power of the people that weaponize this against women online, but if possible, will take a long time.

I’ll always remember how network cards work thanks to Chun’s description of how they operate “promiscuously.”

Net Neutrality & Everyone Online: responses

Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination

In 2002, Tim Wu proposed broadband discrimination as an alternative to open-access to reach the ultimate goal of network neutrality, and lays out why he believes this should be legislatively regulated as opposed to letting the market self-regulate. Wu describes a neutral network as “an Internet that does not favor one application (say, the world wide web), over others (say, email)” and open-access as “a structural requirement that would prevent broadband operators from bundling broadband service with Internet access from in-house Internet service providers.” Then, he describes a system that would “distinguish between classes of restrictions that should generally be allowable, and those that might raise suspicion” be managed through banning certain activity or price discrimination.

The point of the neutrality principle is not to interfere with the administration of the Internet Protocol side of a broadband carrier’s network. It is, rather, to prevent discrimination in that administration.

This paper raised many questions because of my lack of technical knowledge of the internet at the time and now, and the changes that have occurred in between. What follows is a series of dumb questions.

  • It’s unclear to me how “IP’s neutrality is actually a tradeoff between upward (application) and downward (connection) neutrality.” Does this just refer to fixed bandwidth?  
  • Why does “Delivering the full possible range of applications either [require] an impracticable upgrade of the entire network, or some tolerance of close vertical relationships.” First, why is it impracticable to upgrade networks? Is this referring to a solution within a certain timeframe? Surely networks get upgraded? Then, he references “vertical integration” and “vertical relationships” as potentially necessary, but I’m not sure why, or what an application that requires this might be.
  • Potentially related: the landscape of providers didn’t allow wifi in 2002! What changed between then and now? Did changes come about because of infrastructure improvements or changing norms with the providers themselves?
  • Not addressed (he does say broadband economics is out of scope): is there a problem with the suggested market approach to selling bandwidth? If there’s a limited supply, does that leave the people least able to pay without connectivity? Does this mean there should be bandwidth caps?

This paper made me very curious about solutions to fair network access now that this is increasingly considered a right. If part of the problem is infrastructure related, maybe upgrades in the public interest could be funded through social impact bonds?


Here comes everybody

Chapter three, “Everyone is a Media Outlet,” of Clay Shirky’s 2008 book describes the “amateurization” of journalism. Traditionally, the “news” has been “newsworthy events” and “events covered by the press” (I think this means things trained journalists have deemed important). Now that the internet lets just anyone have a blog or social media, people report on and write about things only professionals used to do. I’m not sure if Shirky thinks this is a problem in itself, but he does posit there is an issue with the field not understanding how their role as gatekeepers of news is dissolving.

What’s so great about elite gatekeepers and professionalism?

What Shirky presents as this sort of weird problem with remarks Senator Trent Lott made at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party actually seems to me like a victory in delivering news that is important to subgroups of people that otherwise would have gone uncovered by professional journalists. In this instance the controversy affected right-wing bloggers and libertarian republicans, but if “the key to any profession is the relation of its members to one another” then ASNE’s Newsroom employment census shows the field of journalism may be missing some relationships:

“The percentage of minority journalists has hovered between 12 and 14 percent for more than a decade. In 1978, when ASNE launched its Newsroom Employment Census of professional full-time journalists, 3.95 percent were minorities.”

Perhaps the “internal consistency of professional judgement,” established by journalism is mostly good, except for when it blinds the field to large changes. I am more broadly skeptical of professional norms than this.

I was convinced that there should be a Federal Law that defines who is protected by journalistic activity and some definition of what this is. I hear this complication about bloggers but surely there can be some distinction made between important investigative activity and opinion pieces/editorial?

Chapter four “Publish, Then Filter” elaborates on patterns of communication that are changing. “Saying something to a few people we know used to be quite distinct from saying something to many people we don’t know” but now we have these “many to many” conversations online. The best part of this chapter was the discussion around filtering information the vast ecosystems of information, and how “communities of practice” that can form naturally benefit in great ways from new ease of communication.

Mirrors, tails, and labor: responses

Beyond the Mirror World

Philip Agre’s “Beyond the Mirror World” largely deals with the question of representing the real world with quantitative data. He gives examples of data use that seem to demonstrate the Capture Model he proposed in “Surveillance and Capture, Two Models of Privacy” and examines Gelernter’s idea that “the progress of computing will inevitably produce a single vast distributed computer system that contains a complete mirror image of the whole of reality.” He also addresses issues of privacy, and complications related to de-identifying data.

Perfect representation is impossible: we can at most measure proxies of things and activities, which reminded me of Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science“, which has to do with the development of a map so exact it becomes a perfect replica and is thus useless. Abstract representations are useful because they allow us to learn and express truths more broadly. Otherwise, what’s the point? We might as well just look around. It’s too hard to synthesize or extrapolate this way. The alternative is to examine the mirror-world in some software mediated way. Some data are hard to perceive in our physical reality: sound (because of its temporal property), radio waves, psychometric measures, etc. How Borges’ imagines perceiving infinity feels relevant in this way, too.


The Long Tail

It was delightfully nostalgic to read Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, which examines the effect and potential of web-mediated media consumption in 2004. The sudden ease by which we could consume media in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s was exciting and overwhelming (I remember collecting a massive archive of music that I lost when my computer crashed–my music identity never recovered and by then no one owned music anymore–physical things are important). The big change was upending the 20-80 rule, since the internet allowed a market around more obscure media to be profitable.

While the options for consumers and the profits for visionary companies that developed algorithms to help people find niche content are elaborated upon, very little is said regarding the effect on the artists, the many companies cited as examples of old-school mainstream media providers, and whether we’re okay with new media companies collecting our personal data to market to us better. I feel a certain amount of resentment for the large media conglomerates that serve(d) as gatekeepers: I saw Triplets of Belleville and theaters and it’s one of 3 DVD’s I own. Hollywood still exists and smaller artists with distributed followings still struggle. Are algorithmic suggestions for similar content making us more isolated? And is the convenience worth the privacy trade-off?


Free Labor: Producing culture for the digital economy

Tiziana Terranova’s essay critiques the state of post-capitalist labor markets as they’ve developed specifically alongside the internet, arguing that the internet is reliant on free labor. It’s unclear to me whether it’s more true that, “the fruit of collective cultural labor [is] not simply appropriated, but voluntarily channeled and controversially structured within capitalist business practices” than it has been in the past. It seems that culture has always been produced on the fringes and slowly incorporated into the mainstream–if someone with investment capital pays attention then it becomes a commodity.

I think there’s also some validity to the argument that internet/culture/content work is devalued because of the “minoritarian, gendered, and raced character of the Internet population.”

“How many women have produced a fuckton of tech content for medium that hasn’t been compensated?” – @shanley, 2014

Nurses and teachers don’t see their wages increase in response to increased demand because of the demographics that dominate these fields (and when white/men do enter these fields they earn much more, but duh they always do). But with regards to knowledge work, a key distinguishing factor is its collaborative nature:

“The acknowledgment of the collective aspect of labor implies a rejection of the equivalence between labor and employment.”

I’d argue that employment has also been divorced from wages, and even more strongly dissociated from wealth: more/better labor, more “productive,” societally essential jobs, do not lead to more/better wages. And just because you’re employed doesn’t mean you’re a good person. Acknowledgement of these realities is part of why we see increased discussion around universal basic income.

Responses: Control Societies & the Enduring Ephemeral

Postscript on the Societies of Control

Deleuze’s essay, “Postscript on the societies of control,” did not seem to me to completely contradict Foucault’s chapter on the Panopticon from Discipline and Punish. Instead of control, conformity, and discipline being enforced by institutions, the larger system develops the mechanisms of control that reflect its values. We are moving from enclosures to “societies of control.” Decline of institutions and trust of institutions was a common trend of the 20th century, and persists into the 21st. We are all actually serving a capitalist agenda: “Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.”

While I feel, see, and understand the results of the capitalist values the motivate and control people, I think this view (and Foucault’s I guess) is overly pessimistic (perhaps because I’m lucky). People are motivated by un- and anti-capitalist urges all the time. That people are somehow blindly being made to serve struck me as both hilarious (because it’s true) and ridiculous (because it’s also not).

Many young people strangely boast of being “motivated”; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines.

(Ambition is a trap.)

People still do plenty of things because out of hedonism, curiosity, love, mischievousness–and you can’t really stop them.

The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory

One component of Chun’s [link] critique of the academic new media landscape is breaking apart the comparison between memory and storage. She recalls the memex, the imaginary device Bush posited could expand and improve human’s recollection of information, and save some piece of our cognitive load devoted to mechanical and repetitive tasks. Chun points out the memory degenerates, and rather than save us from repetition, media allows the same texts discovery and re-discovery, amplifying repetition and “trapping us in the past” where “response is demanded over and over again.” New medias, like the internet, also degenerate: texts change, are deleted, and reappear.

She also notes that just because information is stored and retrievable, it does not make it universally accessible, since accessing it requires human reading and re/interpretation:

A machine alone, however, cannot turn “an information explosion into a knowledge explosion.”

Chun’s main thesis unites these aspects with new media to posit it is not the speed of change but rather their “enduring ephemerality” that is the “defining characteristic” of new media. This idea that we are trapped in the past of this amplified and constant repetition reminded me of Massive Attack vs Adam Curtis: we are inundated with the outputs and suggestions of predictive algorithms (I would argue a kind of new media) that are (necessarily) based on old data. Is the logical conclusion that nothing new or original will ever happen again?

…because everything is endlessly repeated—response is demanded over and over again. The new is sustained by this constant demand to respond to what we do not yet know; the goal of new media czars is to constantly create desire for what one has not yet experienced. To put it most bluntly, this nonsimultaneity of the new—this enduring ephemeral—means we need to get beyond speed as the defining feature of digital media or global networked communications.

Midterm ideas


I want to use information from the political party time API to create a web or physical experience with information about legislators’ campaign fundraisers. One idea for a physical result would be to create a glitter snow globe based on how many fundraising events a state or legislator has in a particular day or week. I like this because it evokes the dance parties held as protests by queer activists in front of Mike Pence’s house.

Another twist on this idea is to trigger this based on venmo donations (to somewhere like The Center for Responsive Politics, which promotes government transparency). I like this because the transparency of our transactions on the app contrast the transparency of money in politics.

Something like this

Discrete aspects of the project of which I could do a portion:

Oops this is too many things to do in 5 days
venmo api

I found the term webhook in the venmo api documentation. I didn’t know what this was but it seems like this would allow real-time updates from a venmo account to trigger something happening on my server. I found some documentation to set this up using node and express and added a webhook to my venmo account that points here. The webhook was validated according to venmo but I can’t tell if it’s working correctly–I couldn’t get anything to log.

What exists?
  • Projects using Open Secrets/Center for Responsive politics data.
  • A number of organizations that maintain APIs.

A number of tutorials on how to control Raspberry Pi GPIO:

Discipline and punish, Panopticism: response

Foucault examines the idea of the panopticon as it relates to social control, a metaphor of the architectural design that Bentham proposed as an efficient surveillance structure and “enlightened” solution for hierarchical/authoritarian institutions like prisons, hospitals, schools, and workplaces. For the guards, doctors, teachers, and employer, there could perhaps be some relief in the utilizing the threat of surveillance to exert control rather than actual, continuous surveillance. Unlike Bentham, Foucault characterizes the panopticon as “a cruel, ingenious cage,” and a “mechanism” that “automatizes and disindividualizes power.”

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it…Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.

According to wikipedia, “The use of prisons can be traced back to the rise of the state as a form of social organization.” To move from a mechanism of surveillance to a mechanism of control assumes some consequence for disobeying the institution/authoritarian power. An important design aspect of the panopticon is that the surveillant cannot be seen, or counter-surveilled, and those surveilled are separated from each other, alone. The implication is that subordinates cannot know of, or communicate with each other to gain power, and cannot know anything of their surveillant, another avenue to power.

These constraints weaken the metaphor, since only prison-like structures can maintain separation and isolation such that people lose the power to organize and hold a central authority accountable. However, the latent surveillance apparatus has a psychological impact stemming from the knowledge that it could be employed at any moment. This calls to mind the de-facto surveillance structures that exist in low-income/urban areas, wherein institutions like schools and hospitals turn into places to avoid or be arrested. More recently, ICE has also targeted social gatherings and places people receive social services. A parallel is often drawn to dragnet telecommunications surveillance, but in this case the surveillant is not central and visible, but rather distributed and somewhat invisible. The opacity of the surveillance infrastructure results in an additional undercurrent of uncertainty.

Besides for “observation,” Foucault posits the panopticon serves as “laboratory… a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals.” The discussion of “disciplinary mechanisms,” such as schools and charities as “centers of observation” feels particularly insidious in an age of big data. Between school records, reporting and research related to social services, particularly those that serve the poor, police records, video surveillance, and our digital traces, we cannot live without producing information about ourselves. It seems as though capitalist incentives perpetuate the results and insights from that data into our realities and into the future. How will we maintain a healthy ecosystem of free thought, resistance, and emergent sub-cultures?

…the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge; the play of signs defines the anchorages of power; it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.

HW 4

Updated here and previous versions are now on github.